Music Break: Kingston Trio – Charlie and the MTA

January 30, 2019

 

Per Bill McKibben today:

‘Charlie on the MTA’ is one of the great political protest songs of all time–a call for affordable public transit. The woman who wrote it (in 1949) died today

Remembered as one of the opening shots of what U. Utah Phillips called the “Great Folk Scare” of the 60s.

Boston Globe:

When Jacqueline Steiner wrote most of the lyrics in 1949 for what is popularly known as “Charlie on the MTA,” she considered it a “toss-off, an occasional song that would soon be forgotten” — a fate much like what befell poor Charlie, who was trapped forever on the subway.

Instead, it became one of the best-known Boston songs — rivaled only by such anthems as “Dirty Water” — and the namesake of the modern-day MBTA’s CharlieCard. After the Kingston Trio recorded a hit version in 1959, fans across the country sent the Metropolitan Transportation Authority envelopes stuffed with nickels to help Charlie pay the 5-cent increase in an exit fare and end his eternal ride.

Listeners needed only to hear the song once to clap and sing along with the unforgettable refrain:

But did he ever return,

No, he never returned

And his fate is still unlearned

He may ride forever, ’neath the streets of Boston

He’s the man who never returned

“I am continually amazed that people — it doesn’t matter where they’re from — still know the song, which we wrote all those long years ago,” she told the Globe in 1998.

That was the year Walter A. O’Brien Jr. died. It was on his behalf that Ms. Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes penned what is officially titled “MTA” — a campaign song for O’Brien, a Progressive Party candidate who finished last in the Boston’s 1949 mayoral race.

O’Brien opposed the MTA’s 5-cent fare increase, but that resonated too little in an election most remembered as the first time John B. Hynes defeated James Michael Curley.

The song’s original last verse, which Ms. Steiner recorded in 1949 with others in the group Boston People’s Artists, included a plug for Walter O’Brien’s campaign. In the Kingston Trio’s somewhat reworked version, the first name “George” was substituted — probably as a hedge in the red-baiting McCarthy era, when name-checking a progressive like O’Brien could prompt radio stations to avoid playing a song.

Hawes, whose father and brother — John and Alan — were famed folk musicologists, wrote the verse that makes listeners chuckle and think:

Charlie’s wife goes down to the Scollay Square Station

Every day at quarter past two

And through the open window

She hands Charlie a sandwich

As the train comes rumbling through.

“To this day if I sing that song, that is the key verse,” Ms. Steiner told the Globe in 2010. “It gets laughs. It also inevitably gets someone coming up to me afterwards and saying, ‘Why didn’t she just give him the extra nickel?’ ”

Therein is the song’s appeal. Charlie is an everyman — a harried commuter burdened by bureaucracy, shackled in a literal sense by government’s increasing costs.

“It’s easier to care about one person than about a million people,” Hawes, a National Medal of Arts recipient who died in 2009, told the Globe in 1993. “Many people have the sense that they are careening through the world and they’re not able to do anything about it. They’re trapped in a system and they can’t get out.”

Such weighty thoughts aren’t the usual fare of runaway hits, which made the success all the more surprising.

“Everyone thought the song was a lot of fun, but we had no idea of any commercial possibilities,” Ms. Steiner told the Globe in 1959, when the Kingston Trio’s remake meant that she and Hawes would receive royalties. “If you had suggested to us then that it would become a popular hit, we would have thought you were foolish.”

An only child, Jacqueline Steiner was born in New York City on Sept. 11, 1924, and grew up in Greenwich Village. Her mother, Jane Lippert, had been a phone operator, and her father, Joseph Steiner, was a clothes salesman.

Ms. Steiner graduated from Vassar College with a bachelor’s degree and went to Radcliffe College for graduate studies, which she left before finishing a master’s. In Cambridge, she began singing with musicians at a house where Hawes lived.

At the time, Ms. Steiner was raising money for Spanish Civil War refugees through the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, according to “Did He Ever Return? The Forgotten Story of ‘Charlie and the M.T.A.,’ ” which Peter Dreier and Jim Vrabel published in the journal American Music.

Two brothers at the musical gatherings, Sam and Arnold Berman, came up with an idea for a song about the MTA’s move to charge riders an extra nickel if they exited at stops above ground.

Borrowing a melody from a song Hawes had performed with the Almanac Singers, Hawes and Ms. Steiner worked up a campaign tune for O’Brien’s campaign. In an early draft, Ms. Steiner used the name “Angus,” which was quickly discarded because “it suggested the stereotype of a skinflint Scotsman,” Dreier and Vrabel wrote.

The Boston People’s Artists recorded “Charlie” at the Ace Recording Studio on Boylston Place, and it debuted in the mayoral campaign’s closing weeks.

Ms. Steiner married Arnold Berman and moved to New York City for his studies. They divorced a few years later, and she married Myron Sharpe, a book publisher. For many years, she was an editor, including at his publishing houses, even after they divorced.

She eventually settled in Norwalk, where she was involved with the local NAACP chapter.

Ms. Steiner was a longtime political activist who performed concerts in the Soviet Union during her honeymoon with Myron, with whom she had two children — Susanna Sharpe of Austin, Texas, and Matthew Sharpe of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“She was, I would say, a very gregarious introvert,” Matthew said. “She had a big personality, she had a lot of friendships, she really enjoyed company — and she was always quite a loner.”

Ms. Steiner recorded two albums — “No More War,” a 1966 collection of anti-Vietnam War songs she had written, and 1991’s “Far Afield,” which included songs in several languages, among them her version of “Charlie.”

She sang in choirs in Connecticut, performed at churches and synagogues, and continued to give concerts into her 80s, when arthritis curtailed her ability to play guitar.

In a video posted on YouTube that Jim Michaud made for a Boston Herald story, Ms. Steiner’s voice is clear and strong at 87 as she sings verses of “Charlie” unaccompanied. She had no interest in stopping.

“One of the last conversations she had was with my wife,” Matthew said. “She admitted something she hadn’t told her children, which was that she was scared of dying. My wife, who’s a spiritual person, said, ‘You probably don’t believe what I believe, but I think you’re going to a beautiful place.’ And my mother said, ‘A beautiful place? I don’t want to go to a beautiful place. I want to stay in this boring, ugly place.’ ”

A service will be announced for Ms. Steiner, who in addition to her two children leaves five grandchildren.

Though she largely left Boston behind not long after the 1949 campaign that brought about “Charlie on the MTA,” Ms. Steiner’s song became part of the city’s cultural heritage, covered by scores of musicians including the Dropkick Murphys.

Royalties offered a “nice extra comfort zone” financially, she told Dreier in 2007.

“I feel as if I should go back to Boston and ride the MTA again, just out of loyalty,” she said with a laugh in the 1959 Globe interview.

Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

4 Responses to “Music Break: Kingston Trio – Charlie and the MTA”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Great song, and yes, the verse about Charlie’s wife WAS the best verse.

    The Trio visited my college on their fall/winter 1959 eastern college tour.
    They gave a concert in the gym, and in addition to the great music, I remember it for two reasons. First, it was on November 10th, the birthday of the USMC, Second, my fraternity had volunteered to help out the SGA and do parking duty, and I was on my post out front with my maglite when a station wagon (followed by a van) stopped, the passenger window rolled down, and the little guy (Nick Reynolds) said “We’re the band—-where do we get in?” One of the tall members of the trio was driving and the other was in the back seat. I pointed and said “Drive around there and stop at the last door—-they’re waiting for you—-give a knock and and they’ll help you unload”. Got a “thanks” and off they went.

    They were obviously not rich enough to hire drivers yet, and it’s interesting to see that Bill McKibben cites the song now. He wasn’t even alive on 11/10/59.

  2. Keith McClary Says:

    I can imagine songs like that about subprime mortgages, the continuing Afghan war, Wells Fargo, student loans and the Trump Wall. Why aren’t they written and sung?

  3. redskylite Says:

    Powerful times in music as the big bands faded and the folk world awakened.

  4. redskylite Says:

    This from Zambian musicians, “Ring the alarm, this is an emergency. . .”


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